Monday, September 26, 2011

Coffee talk

I learned the practice of hanging out in diners at a young age. My parents used to let me tag along on their visits to the local Big Boy, where they knew all of the staff and many of the patrons. Rather than being bored by sitting around and listening to adults talk, I embraced it. That's probably where I first developed not only my appreciation for coffee but also what I like to believe are finely-honed people-observing skills. Not just people watching...anybody can do that...but serious observation. It is indeed a skill. That, plus the added benefits of being allowed to loiter for about $2 plus the opportunity to participate in the rapidly disappearing art of conversation with actual flesh-and-blood human beings and you have a pretty nice form of entertainment.
Last night, I found myself at Pop n Son's, one of Tampa's oldest established 24-hour diners, a true greasy spoon in the classic sense. My date and I wound up there because we were looking for a place to loiter and talk. We've both lived in the Tampa Bay area for some time and we were comparing notes about how the place had changed over the years. Restaurants, nightclubs, stores and stuff that have come and gone. As we were talking, a man in the booth behind me turned and said, "I wasn't eavesdropping but I heard you mention...". Under diner/coffee shop standards of etiquette, this was a perfectly acceptable way to invite himself into the conversation so he could share with us his own unique memories of days and places gone by. Not wanting to violate those standards of etiquette ourselves, we gladly welcomed him. Truth is, I was thrilled that an unintentional eavesdropper wanted to join our conversation. I love my usual coffee hangout, the oft-mentioned Tre Amici @ The Bunker, but there's something very old-fashioned and a good way...about finding yourself out late, sitting in an all-night diner, with a waitress named Barb or Dorothy endlessly refilling your coffee cup while you listen to a stranger teach you some local history lessons and I was enjoying the experience.
He was telling us about growing up in West Tampa (the neighborhood I live in); "All the kids I grew up with were either Italian or Cuban. We got along great, just kids who spent all day long playing baseball until it got dark out. And then, our mothers had to come get us to make us go inside. Not like kids these days."
I'm not as old as he is but I have similar memories. I too was a kid who much preferred playing outside to being cooped up inside a house. Yes, those were truly good old days and it's a shame that kids today don't know what they're missing.
"I like Tampa, always have. So many different people from so many different places. Everybody gets along really well with one another."
Yes, I like Tampa too. I've often said that Tampa is just a small town with lots of people!
"Even our blacks don't really act up that much. Not like in St. Pete."
Yeah, and....uh, what?
"Oh, yes. They have their hands full over there. They're out of control. At least most of 'em in Tampa seem to be civilized."
My date and I exchanged uncomfortable looks. The kindly old stranger who had joined us our leisurely stroll down memory lane turned out to be a bitter old racist with an ax to grind.
"I don't really care for the Arabs (pronounced AY-rabs) that are showing up now. Don't trust 'em."
My date, attempting to be polite without endorsing his view offered, "a lot of Indian people live here now."
"Same thing. Ay-rab, Indian. What's the difference? They move in and take all the jobs and decent people who were born here are left panhandling on street corners."
Not wanting to provoke a confrontation, I resisted the urge to point out that many of the people he was lumping into one mislabeled group, apparently anybody with brown skin that he couldn't identify as "a black", were simply following the classic immigrant blueprint of coming to America, investing their life savings in a business, working at it with the help of their families and trying to make something of themselves, a story very similar to those that many of us like to tell about our own ancestors. Instead, I didn't really say anything at all and the conversation just sort of...died. After a few minutes of silence, we went back to talking about our stuff in our booth, consciously or not, steering the conversation into us-specific areas that would make it difficult for an eavesdropper, unintentional or not, to invite himself into. He took the hint and didn't say anything else to us. We paid our bill, nodded to him and left shortly after that, probably an hour or so sooner than we would have otherwise.
Oh well. At least the coffee was good.


Jordi said...

I hope that one day those folks will die off. But I am not too sure.

RottenMom said...

I love when racists make racists comments about african americans to me. I wait until they dig themselves really deep into a dark hole and when they take a pause, I tell them that my niece is black. Usually freaks them out, seeing as they weren't expecting to hear that from pasty white me.